The last Belgian flower auction, Euroveiling, has its challenges. The declining Belgian floricultural industry has led to a reduced supply from within the country. The ever growing space left by the Belgian growers is filled with imports. The auction itself has been buying additional supply from the Netherlands since 2016. Roger Fierens: “We’re doing quite well, but there’s also plenty of room to improve.”
By Arie-Frans Middelburg
At the end of our Euroveiling tour, we end up in the office of host Roger Fierens, where the auctions in Brazil, Canada and the Netherlands are mentioned. It turns out that the director is well aware of the current state of affairs at Plantion and FloraHolland. With regards to the latter, Fierens expresses his concerns about the many digital platforms that have sprung up all over the Netherlands. “I’m not too sure that FloraHolland’s future is looking brighter than ours”, he says tellingly.
What became clear during the visit, is that Euroveiling is not without its own challenges, mostly because of the declining number of Belgian growers. Fierens: “The number of Belgian growers has been going down by 5-10% per year.” As a result, the auction in Brussels has become more and more dependent on supply from Kenya, Ethiopia, Israel, Colombia, Ecuador, Italy, France and the Netherlands, to keep their assortment broad. It’s a development that has been going on for a while and it won’t stop either.
When we’re walking through the supply hall, Fierens tells us that, looking at the year as a whole, only a little more than 50% still comes from Belgian growers. The number of members – Belgians only – has gone down to 160. That’s why, in 2016, Euroveiling decided to start buying plants and flowers themselves, through the clocks in Naaldwijk as well as directly from Dutch growers.
Fierens explains that this concerns supplementary assortment, most of which Euroveiling sells on in Brussels under the supplier names of ‘Bloemenservice’ and ‘Plantenservice’. These reselling activities have become a substantial part of the auction’s turnover. Bloemenservice accounted for 15% of the turnover of flowers in 2017 and Plantenservice had an even larger part, with 30-40% of the total turnover of plants, says Fierens.
He admits that initially, most members weren’t too happy about it, because they felt the auction was spending their money on the competition. But in the end, they were mostly understanding and grateful. “We must maintain a broad assortment, otherwise customers will go elsewhere and we will lose them, which would be worse for our members. That’s why we buy the additional supply ourselves”, he explains.
According to Fierens, the reselling of plants and flowers is cost neutral. “We don’t make any profits on it. It’s a way to keep growers and customers on board. That’s a gain that can’t be expressed in money.”
Despite the recent years of staff cuts, Euroveiling is doing well, says Fierens. Last year’s turnover amounted to €32 million, which was a 3% increase. For as long as Fierens can remember, the auction has never been in the red. “We have no debts”, he states adamantly. “We’ve got a fairly stable number of customers,” Fierens continues. “We’re acquiring slightly more than we’re losing. Newcomers include garden centres and florists.”
Euroveiling is mostly an auction for florists, who still want to see, smell and feel the products and therefore choose to buy through the clock. The majority consists of florists who have more than one shop. There are also some smaller florists, who buy once a week (on Thursdays), as well as market traders, garden centres and wholesalers.
Fierens explains that plants account for only 22-24% of Euroveiling’s turnover. “We’d like to expand that segment in order to attract more buyers. We know that eventually, 20 to 30% of the florists is going to disappear, because of the competition of the retailers. If we can offer a wider assortment of plants through the clock, hopefully we’ll be able to attract more garden centres. If our plant turnover doesn’t go up, our flower turnover won’t go up either. Garden centres won’t come just for the flowers. They come to buy plants and might add some flowers while they’re here anyway.”
Some Belgian garden centres and large florists drive to the Netherlands to buy there, says Fierens. “I used to be a grower myself and I would also drive to the auction in Rijnsburg. The next day, I’d see my flowers for sale at the Belgian wholesalers. Buyers don’t just drive 300 to 400 kilometres per day for fun. So, there’s a lot to be gained from that. It would be great if buyers could get all their produce here. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple.”
There are still opportunities in the current distribution market (Northern France and Belgium) according to Fierens. “We don’t have enough customers in our own region. We could have at least 20% more. We’re doing quite well, but there’s also plenty of room to improve.”
One container at the time
In order to retain customers and acquire new ones, Euroveiling has put a strong focus on service. They offer remote buying, intermediary services, auction presale (started 4.5 years ago) and upon request, they will also arrange transport for their customers. For clock customers, the auction guarantees a delivery time of 15 to 20 minutes.
“It means our costs are higher because of extra staff, but that’s what the customer wants. Our customer type demands a high level of service. We try to be as flexible as possible.”
Workers go around on foot to distribute sold products. Transactions are relatively small, so there’s a lot of toing and froing. Electric carts are only used to deliver supply to the five clocks and to bring trolleys with sold products to the vans. “FloraHolland is fighting a problem that we’ve already been dealing with for the past fifteen years. We’ve been selling one container at the time for years”, says Fierens.
This Thursday, typically the busiest day of the week, the gallery is pretty full. There are about 250 customers from Belgium and Northern France (9%) in the bidding hall, which has a total of 500 seats. There’s a lively atmosphere among the buyers. Many are enjoying a cup of coffee and a snack while chatting away and showing each other pictures on their phones. “It’s always like this”, claims Fierens. “It’s almost a social event.”
There are only a few laptops on the tables, for buying elsewhere. “I’m convinced that our customers don’t want to lose the local auction and the physical clocks”, says Fierens. Current figures seem to confirm this. Only 20% of the total turnover consists of remote buying (4%), auction presale (9%) and intermediary services (7%).
Fierens feels that these systems need more time and the auction will continue to invest in them. Auction presale is going to be expanded this year and the remote buying system is going to be renewed. Customers will get to see two clocks and live images for remote buying from now on.
Another novelty is the ‘pre-bid’ with a fixed or variable price: auction customers can use the remote buying system to put in a bid for plants and flowers a day in advance. The computer will subsequently be ‘pressing’ for that customer during the auctioning process.
This way, customers no longer need to get up early. The younger generation is going to buy digitally more and more, says Fierens. “It’s up to us to respond to that. I don’t see the physical clocks coming to a halt any time soon, though. I’d say that 70% of the turnover will still be realised through the physical clock.”
The question that remains, is about the impact of a further decline of the Belgian floricultural industry. Fierens confirms it’s important for the auction to keep the supply from Belgium. “It’s not all doom and gloom. There are still some young Belgian growers with profitable companies. But yes, there are also some Belgian growers who have not invested in their companies for ten or twenty years now. I will do everything I can to keep the Belgian growers here and stop them from going over to the Netherlands.”
But if we had to rely heavily on imports, that wouldn’t be completely disastrous either. Customers don’t really consider plants and flowers from the Netherlands as imports anyway. However, the long-standing Belgian growers supply the niche products that customers come to the auction for, says Fierens.
“That lack of supply does worry me. We’ve got to supplement with something. I’m hoping to fill that gap with Dutch growers who are no longer able to sell their produce in the Netherlands. We can offer them a platform. We don’t apply the cost-maker, cost-bearer principle. Our large growers simply have to show solidarity. Because we need the small growers, too. Customers don’t just come here for roses, gerberas and chrysanthemums.”
In addition to this challenge, Fierens has one even bigger worry. And that’s the future of the Euroveiling cooperative. Because the core – the number of members – is getting smaller and smaller. “What’s the cooperative going to look like in five years time? I’m afraid I don’t have a ready-made answer to that.”